Louisiana IT agency audited for poor communication, accountability

Dickie Howze (StateScoop)

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A recent report from Louisiana Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera called for major changes to how the state’s technology agency interacts with the other government departments it serves.

The report, published Jan. 22, includes the results of a performance audit of the Office of Technology Services. Purpera’s office said it began investigating after a survey it sent to state agencies returned “concerns about OTS service delivery,” including accusations of poor communications, slow resolution of help-desk tickets and a lack of accountability and transparency.

But Louisiana Chief Information Officer Richard “Dickie” Howze, who leads OTS, told StateScoop the agency’s shortcomings should be viewed in light of its overall progress since being formed just five years ago. Purpera concluded that OTS is falling short in its interactions with state agencies, but did also note some progress, particularly in turnaround times for resolving customer service requests.

Among the findings, there is confusion about the services OTS offers, the auditor said, noting the agency has not developed a comprehensive list of services, along with prices, to state agencies. Further, the auditor said agency heads and “agency relationship managers” at OTS reported not knowing OTS’ full range of services.

The auditor also said OTS has not defined performance expectations for each of the services it provides, limiting its accountability.

Despite complaints about slow turnaround time on service requests, the audit found OTS service desk teams reduced the overall time it took to resolve tickets from 12.4 business days in 2016 to 2.3 business days in 2018. But the audit also found that the agency has not developed procedures for handling complex service requests.

The auditor said OTS also does not track state agencies’ IT projects, nor has it developed processes for managing IT projects.

“[OTS] could not provide key documentation such as project plans and schedules, or payment schedules, for projects we reviewed to determine if it managed projects according to best practices,” the report read. “This is especially important considering OTS has identified a $959 million backlog for modernizing the most at-risk applications.”

The report also says a high number of retirements and positions remaining vacant for “long periods of time” within OTS “negatively impact” the agency’s operations.

Partial agreement

Purpera made several recommendations for how OTS can fix its problems. The audit reported that OTS should “develop a comprehensive service catalog that includes pricing, service components, and how to order services that is easy for state agencies to use and understand.” It also recommended OTS develop a “customer feedback loop” to collect, aggregate, and analyze feedback from state agencies and implement procedures to act on services and areas that need improvement.” In its reply, OTS said “partially” agreed with those recommendations.

OTS agreed fully with a recommendation that it develop timeframes for resolving service requests and develop procedures for monitoring open service requests to ensure they’re resolved on time.

While OTS either fully or partially agreed to all of Purpera’s recommendations, Howze’s letter in response to the audit said his agency “believe[s] that the full depth of this complexity is not fully understood nor has enough credit been given to the enormous progress that has been made since the Office of Technology’s inception in July 2014.”

In a phone interview, Howze said that while he appreciates the work of Purpera’s office, he doesn’t believe the report is a fair reflection of OTS’s progress through its early years. He pointed to the nearly $1 billion backlog of critical IT modernization efforts that were identified when Louisiana began consolidating its IT environment in 2015. He said OTS has been “slowly chipping away,” likening the consolidation work to changing the wing of an airplane mid-flight.

“The purpose of my statement is to define the sheer size and complexity of what me and my team have been working on since July of 2014, and we believe we’ve made a ton of accomplishments,” Howze said.

Among its accomplishments, Howze listed implementing a Medicaid system, resuming updates to the state’s website and implementing a cybersecurity practice that agencies outside OTS’ purview can follow, along with many other major IT system upgrades currently underway.

“We’re investing heavily in security,” he said. “The system we run all our traffic through now is light-years better than the one when we took over.”

While the auditor also criticized OTS for its lack of standardization in project management, Howze pointed out that when the agency was created a few years ago, there was no central project management office, but that OTS has since created such a body. That office has started by focusing on the state’s largest technology projects, he said, which total in the hundreds of millions of dollars. As OTS becomes more sophisticated, he said smaller agencies and IT projects will get the same treatment.

Howze also touted his agency’s progress in evolving the state’s infrastructure, another thing the auditor’s report failed to mention.

“We’ve migrated all our contracting and human resources and other financial systems on to this single platform and we’re about a year-and-a-half out from finishing that complete migration,” Howze said. “So we’re heavily invested in standardizing and modernizing as many parts and pieces of our infrastructure as we can.”

More criticism

In his letter, Howze also points to staffing challenges. Prior to the consolidation, the state had more than 1,200 IT positions, but has averaged about 800 in the five years since. OTS also took over the technology infrastructure for state agencies that the auditor’s report admits included “severely outdated equipment and an array of servers, hardware, and applications.”

The IT consolidation was guided by a March 2014 report the state commissioned from Deloitte that included 21 “deliverables.” In his letter responding to the audit, Howze defended the decision of OTS to veer from the original Deloitte plan because it was in part based on the best practices of IT organizations in other states, some of which  wouldn’t necessarily apply in Louisiana.

Howze also took exception with the way the audit presented its data, such as including findings showing that 37 percent of state employees polled about OTS’ communication rated it as poor and that 38 percent “disagreed or strongly disagreed” that their agencies had mechanisms to hold OTS accountable for service delivery. Howze said in his letter that information was “slanted negatively” because the auditor didn’t emphasize in its statistics those who had positive experiences with OTS.

Howze also criticized the Purpera’s methodology in evaluating OTS’s service desk, noting “[t]here was no benefit given to the complex and diverse nature of the tickets submitted within the survey instrument used.”

He also argued that not all of the agency’s services could be included in a catalog.

“While a service catalog should provide costs and how to procure, service catalogs along are not sufficient for an agency to determine the overall cost of their business need,” Howze writes. “An analysis must include input from the agency, the ARM, and the technical governance groups to fully determine what is needed to fulfill the agency’s business needs. By gaining this input, the transparency issue would be resolved.”

Despite his misgivings with the report, Howze did acknowledge that a relatively new agency like OTS is prone to some growing pains.

“As a young organization, OTS has much to learn through this process in order to mature into the organization that will not only meet but exceed the needs of the executive branch agencies,” he wrote.

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audit, Dickie Howze, IT consolidation, Louisiana
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